We Used to be Underground

I remember when this used to be the cocaine hub of DC.

Well, that was when you were five blocks over and one storey underground. Couldn’t be more different now. But I come here, and I see that old sign there hanging on the wall, and, if I get tipsy enough, and squint my eyes, I can almost see the old place. If the lights are low enough, and the music stops, I can almost convince myself that I’m at the old bar. I used to sit over in a forgotten corner, in the dark, drinking Jack and Coke like the world was going to fucking burn up any second.

I remember a booth, by the dart boards — used to be protected by a minefield of piss and vomit. The lights were always dimmed — or maybe burnt out. Maybe there weren’t any lights. From the bar, you couldn’t see that corner. A primordial darkness closed around you within just a few feet of the dim,shaky bar lights and the always muted TV tuned constantly, day and night, to some fucking soccer game. It was out there, in the unknown land of sticky booths and broken tables, where the real fun took place. There was this waitress, Jessica. She was built like one of those tiny porn stars, like Gauge. Tiny but not sickly or thin — curvy. I’d go sit at that isolated booth and she would come by and lift up her little black waitress skirt and mount me reverse cowboy. She used to fuck me like her life depended on it, hands leveraging against the top of the filthy, sticky tabletop and the rat-gnawed top of the booth, her eyes darting guiltily towards every flicker of shadow on shadow, while her boyfriend sat at the bar and drank rum and cokes, jabbering brainlessly with the bartender who’d just stand there grinning and washing glasses like he was trying out for the role of Lloyd the bartender in The Shining.

Jessica’s two-tone trailer trash hair — bleached blonde on top, dark brunette layers beneath — sometimes seemed like the only light in the world.

I remember my 21st birthday. We were at a big table by the stairs to the bathroom. Those were amazing. They were poured concrete, and had been worn uneven like the dodgy steps in some old castle. I can see them clear as day in my mind. 22 steps up — slippery, no handrail, no solid footing. Just hope that, if you fell, you were drunk enough not to feel it. It was hardly worth the effort, anyway. The bathrooms were a cesspool of drugs and violence and fucking, toilets overflowing, urinals full of vomit, and the whole time the lights would blink on and off like some bad horror movie. On summer days, you could smell them throughout the bar.

My 21st birthday was a nightmare. Cheers, big ears! That’s what all my friends kept screaming, drink after drink. Do you know that’s the first time I drank? The first time I was hungover. My first night in that place, and I would forever return, night after night.

I guess Jessica was my first girlfriend, if you can call it that. She’d ride me in the booths as often as possible. After I’d cum inside of her, she would always fall backwards against me and tell me how lonely she was. Which seemed strange to me. Not sure how to reply to someone saying they’re lonely while your dick’s inside of them, I would just nod my head towards her boyfriend.

“Your man’s right there,”

“He’s not like you,” she would whisper.

“Get me a scotch,” I would whisper back.

And she would obey, rising, pulling up her panties, adjusting her skirt, looking down at me hopefully.

“Erin go Bragh.” I would say.

That was my poison. Irish whisky. That was before my grandfather told me that all Irishmen were faggots. Um…no offense. Or are you putting on a fake accent? He was talking about the southern Irish, anyway. Your version of the Mexicans, right?

It was my co-worker Toni who got me onto the scotch. She was my co-worker at… Well, this shit job in a bookstore in Chevy Chase. We behaved worse there than anyone did at the old bar. She said, after sex, Irish whisky was the only way to go. She said it made her forget. I never asked what it was she needed to forget after sex. The mid-90s seem like they were troubled times for single ladies, eh?

I didn’t just come to the bar to fuck Jessica, though. I had a great friend who used to work here. We called him Rotting Corpse. He worked as a waiter too. There were no real sections, back then. There was nothing formal. I used to wonder why they needed so many waiters, but then I realized that that was how the drugs were getting dealt. Come in, sit down in the darkness of the restaurant, make your exchange, and off you go. The waiters assume all the risk, the owners play dumb.

Used to be, it was a place where you didn’t have to talk. Everyone would know what you wanted depending on where you sat. I call it the cocaine hub of DC, but nobody from DC could score unless they knew the protocol, or came with a local. We were all the Bethesda mafia then. No million dollar condos, no Harris Teeter, no highrise apartments. We all lived in the neighborhoods or those 1930s brick hotboxes on Battery Lane. The stores here were all headshops, porno places. We had two great indie bookstores. It was fun here once. They had to nail down all the benches so the kids wouldn’t steal them. No yuppies then, no transplants, no families. The town rolled up and went to sleep around 9pm. Except for this place.

I used to walk in and, without a word, sit in the sex booth, straight-backed, stoic, like some Japanese businessman or Viet Cong general in hiding. Face forward, brows furrowed, lips set. When Jessica came by, I would unbuckle my pants and let my cock out. She would nod sadly and mount it, also without a word.

If Rotting Corpse was working, I would sit at these old rickety high bar tables and he would bring me mispours, neither of us making eye contact. I’d drink whatever he put in front of me. Bud, Guinness, tequila, vodka, blackberry brandy on ice cream… That really was a mispour once. Who the fuck comes to a dark drug den that stinks of vomit and orders blackberry brandy over vanilla ice cream?

Oh, yes. That was the old Flanagans. Five blocks over, one storey down. It’s not important now, is it? That place is long gone. It’s a fucking condo now. $3000 a month for a 500 square foot efficiency. It’d be cheaper to undertake a moon landing than live in Bethesda now. They’ve raped my town. Gentrified it. That’s the word we use when we don’t want to say “ethnic cleansing.”

So this place is okay, I guess. You have the old sign, and parts of it still smell like vomit. One of the old owners is still here, and the bathrooms are still somewhat alarmingly down rent. You’re a fucking gastropub now, right? The American version of a faux Irish faux gastropub. Twenty years has changed everything. The whole world is just slightly skewed towards the squares, the upright citizens, the salary serfs and the overmedicated. The vast, still, suffocating waters of American society. I overheard the owner the last time I went to take a piss. He was screaming in the kitchen. He said: “My dream was always to run a pub…and now I’m a fucking restaurateur.”

Ah… I hear ya. We had it all once, he and I. He had all the cocaine traffic in the city running through his hands, and I was shooting my wad into his waitresses…

But now he’s a fucking restaurateur. And I’m fucking 40. And I hate Erin Go Bragh. You don’t even have it here, do you? I sometimes wonder if it even existed, or if I spent the 90s in some sort of fugue state.

Oh, but who am I, after all? I’m one of them. The squares. The salary serfs. I sit pretty in my high rent condo watching reruns of Robin of Sherwood. That’s bottom of the barrel British TV. That’s the sort of thing that people who watch Last of the Summer Wine on PBS at 9pm on Saturday nights laugh about. You should not trust a word that I say.

All this to answer your question. How did I get into publishing? I suppose it all begins in David Bishop’s office. He was the vice principal at my high school, just down the road, B-CC. He was the first person who told me, in 1991, that I should not write. He told me that my writing was a “danger to literature.” His words.

What a fascinating thing to say to a 17 year old. A danger to literature. Was that supposed to be a warning? Because all I thought was that, hey, I could bring it all down? I had access to this…power against literature?

By the time he said that to me, I had completed six novels, and I had started my own lit zine that embraced the weird, the suicidal, the diseased, and the broken at my school. I had rewritten the Bible in my own image. All of this I threw out to the public. My writing was pasted to walls, handed out freely at the bus stops, and scattered everywhere like wartime pamphlets dropped from a plane. I was what kept Mr. Bishop awake at night. And when he said I was the danger, I embraced it. I’ve been running some sort of publishing company ever since.

Of course, at 40, you’re no longer a danger. At 40, you sit in gentrified bars and you reminisce about when you were 20. Amusingly, as a tribute, perhaps, to the old days, I’m meeting a friend tonight. He’s my drug dealer. I don’t do drugs, but I…facilitate. I work with writers, and writers need drugs because there’s something fucking wrong with them. My writers are the high-brow types. The people who are worshiped by a tiny, narrow niche. I guess they’re like Jessica, that long ago waitress. No matter how many cocks they take, they’re so lonely and empty inside that it’s tearing them to pieces. That’s what writing’s really about. That’s what drives us all to write. To silence the voices, to stop the madness inside. Perhaps the great works of literature exist only because there’s a lack of Irish whisky in the world.

My buddy can get you whatever you want. Pot, coke, ‘shrooms, 16 year old Nepali girls… If you’re running a small press and you don’t have someone like him on board, you’re doing it wrong.

So, yes! I’m a publisher. It’s because I fucking love books and writing, and because some narrow-minded dead-end nobody told me not to once upon a time.

You know… That Black Bush up there, collecting dust. How about I try a little shot? Just for old times. Want to join me?

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